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SANDF on the frontlines of COVID-19battle

The sight of brown and green camouflage has become the norm on South Africa’s streets since the country entered the national lockdown on 27 March 2020.

In line with the National Disaster Management Act of 2002, President Cyril Ramaphosa deployed nearly 3 000 South African National Defence Force (SANDF) members across the country to support the South African Police Service (SAPS) in restricting movement to curtail the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19).

To add to the force of workers fighting the coronavirus, the Department of Defence and Military Veterans called up members from the Reserve Force, while the South African Military Health Service called up Reserve Force doctors, nurses, and operational emergency care practitioners.

Together with members of the SAPS, the SANDF has played an important role in supporting and enforcing the nation’s lockdown regulations, ensuring that citizens practice social distancing and stay home.

President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered a moving address to SAPS and SANDF members before the country went into the lockdown.

“Officers, I send you off now to go and be amongst our people. I send you to conduct service amongst our people and shower our people with guidance, advice and leadership right now in the Republic of South Africa. Tonight, you begin the most important calling of your mission: To save the lives of South Africans.”

Among those soldiers on the frontlines was Lieutenant Mamosala Tsoane of Platoon 2 Charlie Company in the SANDF’s 21 South African Infantry (SAI) Battalion.

Battling a global pandemic

Tsoane began her career with the armed forces as a rifleman with the 14 SAI Battalion in the Eastern Cape. During her 15-year career, Tsoane has served in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and at various border posts in South Africa, including Beitbridge and the Kruger National Park.

But none of these missions have been as vital as the one to protect the people of South Africa during a global pandemic.

Tsoane was deployed to Alexandra township. She says she felt a mix of emotions in the days before the lockdown.

“This situation was a new experience for all of us. None of us knew what would happen. We knew Gauteng had a high number of coronavirus cases, but we didn’t know where it would spread. People in the community were also not aware of how dangerous the virus was, and how quickly it could spread. People live close to each other and the virus could bring down the whole township. We knew it would be challenging to get people to listen to us and stay home.”

The streets of Alexandra were packed with people on the first day of the lockdown, says Tsoane.

“Some residents did not even know there was a lockdown. Many were angry that they were being forced to stay indoors.”

It took time for residents to accept the regulations of the lockdown, but many were happy to have the SANDF present because it led to a decrease in crime.

Tsoane worked in 12-hour shifts from 6am to 6pm. Her duties included conducting foot patrols and vehicle control checks. She also counselled residents about the impact of the virus and precautions they needed to take.

Serving with pride

Despite wearing protective gear, Tsoane knew she was still at risk of contracting the virus. Soldiers were screened daily for symptoms and if necessary, transferred to nearby hospitals for further testing.

The SANDF also conducted regular presentations and meetings to brief soldiers on progress and ensure they were aware of the importance of washing their hands, practicing social distancing.

Tsoane was stationed at the Doornkop Military Base in Johannesburg, away from family, including her 10-year-old son.

Tsoane says despite the risks of her deployment, being called to serve the country during this global crisis was a special honour.

“This is not an ordinary job. We risk our lives every day not knowing what we will face. Not everyone can do it. But our superiors have placed their trust in us and this is the time to show that we are here when our country needs us.”

During the lockdown, law enforcement agencies arrested thousands for non-compliance with the National State of Disaster regulations. Police Minister Bheki Cele also announced a reduction in serious and violent crimes which is believed to be, among other restrictions, the result of the prohibition of the sale and movement of liquor.

In April, the President announced that he had deployed over 70 000 defence force personnel to assist with the COVID-19 response.

In addition to supporting SAPS, the defence force members will assist in other essential areas, such as the provision of water supply, infrastructure maintenance and health services.

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